Friday, July 24, 2009

Some thoughts on John W. Humphrey's "Ancient Technology".

As mentioned in my future plans post, I have recently been reading John W. Humphrey's "Ancient Technology". I've long considered this particular area a weakness in my all round knowledge of Classical History, and searching out this work was a conscious effort to plug that gap. Generally, owing mainly to the quality of Humphrey's assessment, I think I have succeeded.

As part of the series "Greenwood guides to historic events of the ancient world", the work, perhaps rather predictably, begins with a series foreword by editor Bella Vivante. Given the status of the book as accessible to the general reader, this foreword is quite necessary, but I must confess as someone quite well versed in the classics, I find these forewords a bit of a bore. Essentially the thrust of this one, like most others, is a justification of classical studies.

Considering the decline of classics in schools, I understand the need to defend the discipline to the general reader, and in that respect the foreword is reasonably well written and informative. Nevertheless, it's not why I picked up the book.

Humphrey's begins with a rather snappy and interesting foreword, explaining the background behind the book, introducing the topics to come and suggesting methods of attacking the material within. I found his introductory remarks extremely useful, as they implore the reader to consider, to my mind, two things: Firstly, to consider all elements of ancient technology in context, that is to say - one must forever try not to apply modern standards to classical times - this thought is prevalent throughout the work, especially in the last chapter.

Secondly, he stresses the long term impact of technology, and in particular wants the reader to appreciate that all breakthroughs are based on ideas and inventions that precede them, essentially that where we are now is merely the peak of an ever growing pyramid of technological advances, even seemingly tiny ones.

An interesting device that Humphrey's uses to display the relative explosion in technological advances in the past 3000 years (when compared to the lengthy existence of humans) is to compress 500,000 years into one single year. The result is that on Jan 16th man can make simple tools without any standardisation of form, and then it takes to December 2nd for this to finally happen. Settled life did not begin until the 25th, the Greek alphabet was appeared as 01:40 on the 30th and man went to the moon at 11:30pm on the same day (pg. 10-11).

This compact and easily understood explanation is characteristic of Humphrey's throughout the book, and in helping set everything into context, it is utterly invaluable.

The rest of his introductory sections are also useful and interesting, not to mention expertly methodological. In particular, I liked his section on the problems of literary sources for technology - I found it illuminating and thoughtful.

One thing that is immediately clear as one exits the opening sections is that there is no referencing (a common trend), and while irritating to the academic reader, the work is also aimed at the general reader. That said, this is more than made up for by the copious other useful items added to the end of the work (which I'll mention later).

The remainder of the book is organised into sections, each related to a particular technological field, the topics cover: food and clothing; water, shelter and security, transportation and coinage, recordkeeping and timekeeping and crafts. Generally speaking the organisation into these sections make the work accessible, and prevents it from getting stale. Each section is swift yet detailed.

One of the elements constantly reinforced (even at this point) is the idea that simple devices can have many (perhaps unforeseen) future applications (pg.34) and so Humphrey's urges the reader to be aware of this fact. This is particularly important in the final chapter.

Throughout the work Humphrey's manages to employ a number of highly interesting, tart explanations and comparisons that really help colour the readers understanding of ancient technology. For example, in discussing sieges, he mentions that attacking armies would attempt to poison water supplies to the besieged town using corpses, and he immediately informs the reader that even biological warfare had it's roots in antiquity (pg.35-36). The work in general has a great ability to skim the fat and get to the point of things, often with stark and interesting devices such as this.

Another example is when Humphrey's compares the Oedipus myth to modern road rage (pg.78). While humourous when taken lightly, these brief explanations also serve to reinforce one of the books main points: that all modern technology can be traced back, and that everything is the sum product of what has come before. In this way, Humphrey's utilises these little comparisons to maximum effect.

Somewhat related to this is Humphrey's wonderful explanations of Latin and Greek terminology, where he often gives not just a translation and explanation, but also etymology of the word in question. Some good examples include one that arises from a discussion of the importance of salt (pg.76). Humphrey's outlines the the Via Salaria, that left Rome towards the salt deposits, and the salarium - the yearly allowance given to soldiers so that they could purchase salt - and how, through over 2000 years, this word is the root of our modern word "salary". His explanation is delightful.

Another example of this is the Spanish Balearic Islands, who got their name via the Greek word "baleareis" (to launch) and the Latin word Ballistae (projectile weapons) and the fact that the inhabitants of this area were renowned for their fighting style using these methods (pg.65). It seems there is some debate around the etymology in this case (some of our sources believe the word has Phoenician roots), but Humphrey's provides a valid and interesting explanation. These are just a few instances - the book is literally crammed full of interesting facts, reported in a vivid and lively manner.

Continuing in this style, Humphrey's manages to expose a few common misconceptions, for example that the pyramids were too advanced to be built by humans of that period (he proves that the technology was relatively simple, pg.55). He also challenges the image of Roman aquaducts as the primary source of water to the city, giving ample evidence that they were, in fact, the least common supply method (pg.44).

One of the slightly darker notions that Humphrey raises is the fact that both Classical Athens and Imperial Rome were financially driven by their mineral wealth (at Laurion and Rio Tinto, respectively), and that this mineral wealth, which kick started and supported them so much was effectively brought at the price of countless deaths (pg.108). The dead were, of course, slaves. That the wealth of these mines helped drive technological development is a dark fact that Humphrey is deeply aware of, and explains well.

The work does, however, have a few weaknesses. Some arise from slightly hazy statements, and one or two from poor sentence structure.

One example is that Humphrey's, when remarking on the Roman pride for their decimal system, mentions that Centurions commanded 100 men, but he fails to mention that this changes substantially in the Later Republic and especially after the Marian reforms (dropping below 100, and levelling out at around 80 - although the Centurions kept their names).

Another such occasion is when he mentions the axle blades of the chariot, especially with regards to the Gauls using them (pg.72) but he fails to qualify his statements here, which is bizarre given his extensive experience in archaeological field research, because there is absolutely no archaeological evidence for the existence of these weapons. I found this a particularly strange episode.

A case of poor sentence structure arises when Humphrey's is talking about the Emperors commissioning the building of enormous bath complexes (thermae) and he mistakenly includes Agrippa, who was never Emperor by any definition, among the list of dedicators (pg.48). The sentence is as follows: "Thermae, huge bathing complexes donated by the emperors to benefit the general population of the city. Three had been erected in Rome by the end of the first century C.E.: those of Agrippa and Nero in the Campus Martius, and that of Titus just east of the Colosseum". It could do with some simple editing, as it's misleading as it is.

Humphrey's also seems quite sure of the purpose of Hadrian's wall (pg.64), when in fact there is considerable doubts of what it's intended purpose actually is, especially considering the fact that it's almost never mentioned in our literary sources. Highlighting the academic debate would have been desirable, but Humphrey's makes no mention of it.

Finally, although this particular criticism is a tad unfair. The work is almost entirely focused on the Mediterranean, and while Humphrey's concedes this in his preface (claiming the limits of his own knowledge, and space constraints as the reasons why), it's perhaps a little unfortunate, as a treatment of ancient technology must really consider the influences of many disparate sources had on each other to be truly useful. In this respect, the title of the work is perhaps a little misleading and it may be better understood as a work on the Ancient Technology of Mediterranean Cultures.

Moving towards the end of the book, the final chapter is an exceptionally clear one. Arguing against putting modern perspectives of expectation onto ancient technological advances (he refutes the whole question of why the ancients didn't have an industrial revolution), and outlining why exactly classical civilisations did not such a revolution (a culmination of social attitudes towards manual labour, technology and the supreme interest in land and agriculture) he ties of the book quite nicely with stressing the fact that all technological advances are built upon, and that we cannot criticise the ancients for never making the leap to industrial organisation, when we have used the technological advances handed down to us in such terrible ways. Ending the work on this note brings back acute focus to the idea that all advances, no matter how small, have consequences in the future, and rounds the book off quite nicely.

The final sections of the book are a triumph, in my opinion. Humphrey's includes a large list of "primary sources" detailing all the evidence for the technology described within the book, and they are extremely interesting and accessible. He also includes a good glossary, and an extensive bibliography complete with comments on each entry - a welcome addition. Another feature is a recommendation of internet sites worth visiting and also video resources. In combination all these sections make the book an invaluable reference guide, and as a stepping stone to further research.

The work, then, is generally a great success. It's concise, interesting and well organised. The few faults it does have, of which the Agrippa confusion I hope will be rectified in the future, are easily outweighed by it's considerable good points. It stresses the importance of perspective, and in many ways gives one a greater understanding of the human journey from caveman to modern man, and how each small discovery was used and then built upon to get us where we are today. Combined with the witty and readable style, I consider it to be an excellent guide to the topic of both ancient technology and the development of modern humans.


Relevant bibliography: Humphrey, John W, "Ancient Technology", Greenwood (2006).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Augustus' Social Legislation: a case study.

The following small case study on Augustus' social legislation was prepared by me several years ago to be presented in a Masters tutorial class. I have edited it only very slightly, and so the text seen here represents, essentially, the presentation as it originally was. Generally speaking, I still like the small commentary, and I think the views therein, while hardly controversial, are quite correct. Tasked to overhaul it entirely, I may write it somewhat differently, but generally I'm quite happy with it even in this form.


The social legislation of Augustus is one of the defining characteristics of his reign, although it is problematic in many respects. There has been a tendency in the sources and in scholarship to glaze over the entire Augustan period as having a cohesive and systematically planned objective. Zanker, for example, speaks of a “goal orientated cultural program” enacted by Augustus throughout his reign. Ostensibly, it would seem, that the purpose of this program was to heal Rome from the wounds of civil war and strife.

The aim, according to this view, is to regain the pietas of a bygone age (albeit perhaps an idealised and imagined one) – the age where Romans were real men, their women loyal and their masculine domination of Rome’s neighbours rigid and complete. The consensus was that Rome had become decadent and immoral (a view espoused by moralising writers such as Livy and Sallust) and that it was this immorality – of which adultery and debased sexuality were a feature – that had caused the gods to abandon their favoured city of Rome and allow her to almost destroy herself.

The Augustan answer to this problem was in 18 and 17 B.C.E (followed later by a revision in 9 C.E) to enact legislation making adultery a public offence, and through a system of punishment and reward to induce higher birth rates and suitable marriage among the desirable peoples of Rome. Narrowly these laws are referred to as the Lex Julia or the Julian laws.

The ancient sources for this legislation are somewhat hazy. Suetonius mentions Augustus’s revision of old laws or enactments of new ones on “extravagance, adultery, chastity, bribery and on the encouragement of marriage among the various classes”, but he doesn’t really go into the specifics, preferring, instead, to paint Augustus’s seriousness on these matters by not conceding to complaining Romans in the theatre about the strictness of these laws.

In fact Suetonius has Augustus bring out Germanicus (his grandson, through the marriage of Agrippa and his daughter Julia) and his family as an exemplar, seemingly saying nothing other than epigrammatically sitting with the children on his lap (thus using the young man as a example for all to follow). The only specific Suetonius does mention is that, a revolt upon some of the law’s provisions resulted in increased rewards for childbirth and the allowing of a three year exemption on the obligation to marry following the death of a husband or wife.

That these laws were challenged in some form attests to the difficulty in glazing over the Augustan period as one in where Augustus systematically introduced planned reform across the entire social and public strata(s) to great applause and uniform acceptance.

Some more specifics for these laws can be garnered in the Digest of Paul (as part of a greater compendium of Roman law ordered by Justinian in the 6th century). One of the main aims of these laws was to punish the extramarital affairs of women. A father (a legal paterfamilias- Head of the family) was now allowed to murder his married daughter and her lover, if caught in his house or his son-in-laws committing adultery. Although he must kill both, for if only one was killed then he may be tried for murder.

The law also stipulated that a husband could not kill his wife if he found her committing adultery, but he could kill the lover without repercussions, but only if he was a criminal, actor, prostitute, slave and perhaps if he was a freedman. Furthermore, where he could kill the lover he was also allowed to injure him. If the lover was killed the husband had to divorce his wife within three days and instigate adultery charges against her. If he didn’t then he could be charged himself (it’s all rather complicated). Nevertheless, essentially adultery became a public offence, and was no longer to be dealt with privately, as such permanent law courts were set up to deal with it.

Moreover, the legislation also covered who could marry whom. The essential thrust of this legislation was to prohibit senators and up to their 3rd generation descendants marrying ex-slaves.

Another facet of the laws would seem to paint them as reactionary to the increasing immorality and influence of women. Sempronia in Sallust and Clodia in Cicero, for example, highlighted the growing promiscuity of women. Indeed the moralising here understands these women as immoral and to be acting utterly outside the correct parameters for female behaviour. Although this leads to an extensive debate on gender tensions, for the sake of this small commentary it is enough to highlight the notion that the legislation can also be read as – at least partly – reactionary to the antics of women in the recent past (the past which the laws set out to fix).

Overwhelmingly these various pieces of social legislation seem to form a cohesive policy. The stimulation of marriage and reproduction between desirable Romans and the continued chastity and security of the unions there built seems to be its aim. It’s perhaps a little dangerous to buy into that picture wholesale, though. Our knowledge of the laws is scattered, and the fact that they encountered resistance points towards the idea that implementing them was not a smooth process (indeed that a revision was required in A.D 9 also suggests this).

I think any attempt to understand the laws needs to understand the context surrounding their enactment. The idealised view is of a streamlined cultural policy enacted by Augustus as part of his greater reorganisation of the Roman state into a monarchy. The reality, I think, is a great deal muddier.

For example, the bringing back of traditional Roman pietas which in the Res Gestae Augustus tells us he instigated (8.5) by the restoration of the practices of their ancestors and the idea that Rome was born again after her dissent into moral debasement - espoused in Horace’s Carmen Saeculare, for example, where he speaks of Rome being reborn and the return of faith, peace and ancient modesty, even asking the Gods to help bring to fruition the new laws on marriage and birth – is often accepted as an imagined fiction. Analogously, even today people imagine the past as a bastion of moral excellence, and the same mechanism drove the Romans to be forever imagining their stern and masculine forebears that honoured the gods and brought many peoples under their dominion even if they may never have genuinely existed.

Even if the enactors of the laws and those affected by it believed this moral revolution tale, I think it still highlights a problem for us in fitting the legislation smoothly into the Augustan period.

Augustus’s apparent seriousness over the laws is well attested, the example Suetonius relates about the family of Germanicus in the theatre being one such example. Suetonius also tells us (89) that Augustus read a speech to the senate by a Censor called Metellus from 131.B.C about increasing the birth-rate “as if it had just been written” (the links between the past and the Augustan period in relation to social policies being highlighted). Furthermore, Tacitus tells us (3.24) that Augustus exiled his own daughter Julia (his only natural child) for breaking the adultery laws, and Tacitus also seems to feel that Augustus was perhaps overly harsh in his treatment – which could indicate just how seriously he took the laws and their enforcement.

Nevertheless, the idea that Augustus was coerced in some ways to enact these laws is also prevalent in some sources. Cassius Dio (54.16.3) suggests that Augustus only instituted the legislation under pressure from the senate and Ronald Syme (Roman Revolution, pg 453) posits the idea that the provincial elites were putting pressure on him also. These ideas conflict with the notion of Augustus being in complete charge of implementing a policy of social change and suggest that perhaps the “Augustan Party” that Syme speaks of played a larger role in seeing the laws come to fruition.

Suetonius (69) even suggests that Augustus was an adulterer, which again sets the smooth conception and enforcement of a homogeneous social policy against a rather more complex and greyer background. That he was seemingly exempt from the laws himself (he only had one daughter – Julia), highlights not only the difficulty in understanding the laws, but also the nature of Augustus’ rule – he was above everyone else – the rules, even his own ones, did not apply to him. This idea is powerfully argued by Werner Eck in the work reviewed below.

Further to these difficulties, Tacitus sees the laws as somewhat sinister (Annals. 3.28) mentioning the “tightening of the shackles”. Although Tacitus is a notorious sympathiser for the Republic, the idea he highlights about the legislation being perhaps too oppressive is reflected in Suetonius’s mention of “open revolt” and the subsequent revision of the 18/17 B.C laws in AD.9.

Overall, the social legislation of Augustus is problematic. It doesn’t quite fit into the period as easily as first understood. It is rather a mix of reactions to the period directly before Augustus secured sole rule and a mode to fix (what it believes) are the problems that caused the Civil Wars. I think they must be understood as part of a fragmentary whole. The laws were not smoothly accepted, and it’s possible that Augustus himself was not quite the moral beacon he intended to be (explaining, maybe, his treatment of his daughter in her exile and the way in which he brought her back to a more comfortable life in Italy some years later). In concluding, in abstract terms, I think it’s reasonable to see the laws as cohesive, they do seem to set out with the same ideas in mind, but with many things, once they are set into the context of genuine human relations and interaction they became much more complex.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Future plans.

My head is currently full of thoughts for what to post here, so much so that I've decided to make a post (both to serve my own memory and to act as a signpost) that covers some of the things I'd like to write about in the future.

1 - I'm currently reading a book on ancient technology, which I find very interesting. I've been meaning to read something on the topic for a while and now I've got round to it. I feel a little out of my depth commenting on the scholarly side of the work (although I may well try anyway), and so my focus will be a more general review of the book and some other thoughts. I expect to post this in the next week.

2 - I would like to re-watch Kubrick's "Spartacus" and comment on it's historical veracity, characterisations and any other issues arising from the viewing. I'm interested in making this blog varied, and so don't want to stagnate with purely reviews of books.

3 - On a related note, I'd also like to choose a character from HBO's excellent "Rome" TV series and comment on the historical deviations and characterisation. At the moment I'm leaning towards Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, as the Agrippa in the show differs greatly from the Agrippa of record.

4 - I'm very much aware that most of my focus so far has been on Roman history, especially the late Republic and early Empire, and so I'd like to incorporate some other periods/areas into my writing. The obvious one is to include something Greek, which I certainly plan to do, and also to visit the end of the Roman Empire, for which Adrian Goldsworthy has kindly released a book on very recently.

5 - I'm considering re-working some of the essays used during my Masters, especially with an eye to "upgrading" them. The topics were disparate, and so I think they could be interesting.

6 - I would like to read more classical authors. I've read much of the classical corpus at some point or another, but never with a mind to write something afterwards. I currently live over 1000 miles from by book collection, and so this point may need to wait until November when I can retrieve some of those books.

7 - Finally, I am in Rome from next week, and shall be taking photographs and notes, which I intend to add to this page.

These, then, are my plans. Hopefully all will bear fruit. Note, entries in italics have been completed in some form.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Some thoughts on Werner Eck's "The Age of Augustus".

Following chronologically from reading about the Civil Wars of the Late Republic between Caesar and Pompey, I recently picked up "The Age of Augustus" from the eminent German scholar Werner Eck (the work is well translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider). It's important to note, for reasons which will be made clear later, that I read the 2007 edition.

Briefly I must also make a brief statement regarding nomenclature. It's a convention of historical analysis of this period that prior to 27 B.C.E, Augustus is known by his birth name as Octavian (despite the fact he used his adopted fathers name - Gaius Julius Caesar - after 44 B.C.E) and that Augustus is used for 27 B.C.E and beyond. I will stick to this system in this small review.

Eck begins the work with a brief look at the Res Gestae of Augustus (essentially a lengthy statement of his achievements that was mounted on his mausoleum in Rome for all to see), which to my mind is the best place to start, by running through the main themes of the Res Gestae, Eck manages to introduce and foreshadow the main topics for discussion later in this work.

Using the Res Gestae to underpin the work is a smart choice, for it not only highlights the fact that our understanding of the period is heavily influenced by Augustus' own summary, plus his powerful influence, but also that the essential purpose of the work is to expose the half-truths evident in the Res Gestae itself for the propaganda that they are.

The next few sections are essentially preliminary - they cover the period before the "Augustan Age" (usually considered 27 B.C.E onwards, when the then Octavian "restored" the Republic and accepted the name Augustus), and so are a little outside the works remit. That said, however, much of the thrust of the work depends on Augustus' actions during this period. Nevertheless, it's an essential introduction and well constructed.

Eck recognises and outlines right from the offset that Augustus exerted a huge amount of influence on the period and subsequent history of it. His power was truly immense. Choosing to begin the work with a discussion of the Res Gestae both serves to illustrate this and undermine the "truths" put forward by that influence. Even in the opening sections Eck is at pains to emphasise the large amount of propaganda Octavian used in his Civil War against Mark Antony, and how much of our understanding of the period, and of Antony more generally from this time, is taken directly from the proclamations of Octavian.

The opening section also pays homage to the notion from Syme that the Augustan Age was one essentially crafted from great slaughter and promotion of partisans. Eck does not shy away from the brutality of Octavian during this period, but there is no excessive, Syme like, focus on it. Overall, I think, it's a fair and thoughtful introduction to the period - highlighting the main themes, the central problems and the general tone of the time and character of the future Augustus.

One curiosity of the opening period is the relatively few mentions of Augustus' "party" - namely his right hand man, Agrippa and his advisor Mycaenas. Agrippa is not mentioned until Actium (the decisive battle of the Civil War between Antony and Octavian) and Mycaenas gets barely a fleeting mention throughout the whole work. Given that Agrippa exerted huge influence on Octavian's early rise (he was a great General and soldier) this is somewhat bizarre. A few reasons exist for why this may be, though.

Firstly - all glory was Octavian's/Augustus'. Members of his direct family could share the glory of military victories, but essentially all glory was laid squarely at his feet. In this respect, it's not surprising that others who may be similarly powerful architects of his victories would be overshadowed. Secondly - the nature of politics in this period is essentially private - Octavian, and his aides, would make decisions behind closed doors, and so it's only natural that most of the successes that came from them would be attributed to the figurehead.

The sections following the chronologically based opening of the work are primarily thematic. The topics are all drawn from those highlighted in the opening sections. They cover the general areas of interest during the Augustan Age - the army, foreign policy, the development of his position, government and administration, the city of Rome, the succession and finally his death. Discussing the period in this way is sensible, as it allows Eck to show the deeply gradual process of change that underpins Augustus' entire reign. Nothing was immediate, every success experienced trial and error beforehand, and not everything worked as planned.

Eck's insistence on the slow and steady development of the new system (pg.57 onwards) is merited. He highlights the fact that our understanding of the period comes very much from later sources, who tend to conflate the almost final Augustan model present at his death (in 14 C.E) with the one in place in 27 B.C.E, and as such the essentially gradual development of his position is usually missed. The constant tinkering with army finances and also the fact that his actual position in the state was not clear until well after Actium, are two arguments Eck uses to support this. Given the evidence, I agree with him entirely, as does most scholarly opinion.

Each section has a nice discussion at it's heart. The official statements of the Res Gestae are compared with the, often, conflicting evidence, and Eck spends much effort trying to pull back the façade of the Augustan Age, although nothing excessively controversial comes to light. The effect of the thematic approach is that at the end one (should!) have attained a reasonably rounded and full understanding of the Augustan period. Eck certainly touches on the large themes and does them justice for such a short work.

Criticism of the work prior to the 2007 edition often focused on the complete lack of wordage given to Augustus' social legislation (an immensely important part of the overall Augustan "package" sold to the Roman world). Thankfully, this has been rectified in the 2007 edition, as the topic gets some coverage. That said, however, in some respects it's annoyingly scant - the lack of any discussion of the affair regarding Augustus' daughter, Julia, despite it being hinted at, is a source of chagrin.

Another criticism, which sadly still remains in force, is that there is little mention of the literary and artistic program instigated under Augustus. Vergil and Horace get little mention, and their patron, Augustus' confidant Mycaenas, along with his relationship to Augustus and his "program" more generally is sadly never really given any space or discussion.

The work, then, focuses more on politics. In this respect Eck is somewhat of a successor to Syme - he reads the period as one of people being bound to Augustus, forming a "party" of Augustus so to speak. That he spends considerably less time emphasising the brutal nature of the party's formulation that Syme, does not detract greatly from that essential point. Eck rallies against the conception of Augustus as a benign leader instigating a period of great (and successful) reforms across every layer of society (a rally first started by Syme in the "Roman Revolution"), and instead attempts to see through the Res Gestae (and by implication the propaganda). He sums this up wonderfully when he accuses many historians of taking Augustus "at his own word" (pg.148).

Before concluding, I'd like to make some brief comments on organisation and formulation of the work more generally. Firstly, it makes every effort to translate Latin phrases for the general reader, which is admirable, although curiously the work contains no glossary, which would be very helpful. Secondly, there is no referencing throughout the work, which makes it highly irritating to both the scholar and the general interest reader looking for more specific works.

Lastly, a copy of the Res Gestae is included within the book, and given it's importance, it's an excellent addition. It's a translation by Sarolta A. Takács, which is intended to somewhat supersede the Brunt and Moore edition. While it's an excellent addition to the work, I still think owning Brunt and Moore's edition of the Res Gestae is thoroughly worthwhile, not least for the introduction and copious notes.

In summarising, then, Eck's work is a thoughtful and useful piece of scholarship on the Augustan period. It tries to see through the propaganda (which is exceptionally difficult) and to understand the time much more objectively. Eck succeeds with this in most respects. He urges understanding of period to be clear on it's gradual development, and he covers most of the primary aspects of the complete overhaul Augustus instigated (art and literature aside, sadly).

Eck, though, is keenly aware of the difficulty in pulling back the Augustan veil (he emphasies that all portrayals of the period must stem from the Res Gestae - pg.171), but for the most part he does so with great vigor. One of the elements of Augustus' early life that is sadly underemphasised is his overriding brutality in the finishing of the Civil Wars. It's possible that this arises from Eck's German roots, and the uncomfortable nature of German's discussing brutal dictators, although I would not like to put to much weight on this thought.

In some respects, when one considers Eck's continuation of Syme's "Augustan Party" argument (in showing the Res Gestae to be a work of half truth, Eck essentially indicates how Augustus really asserted his position - brutality to begin with but ruthlessness throughout in developing a core of supporters), the essential conflict between attempting to reveal the true Augustus but being worried of the brutal dictator that may lay beneath, is the central idea that I will take away from my reading of this work.

These things aside, as an introduction, and considering it includes the Res Gestae, this work is certainly essential for anyone beginning to understand the Augustan Age, and also as an interesting piece of literature for those already familiar with it and the various scholarly debates it gives rise to.


Relevant bibliography: Eck, Werner, "The Augustan Age" (trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider) with "Res Gestae Divi Augusti" (trans. Sarolta A. Takács), Blackwell (2007).

Addendum: Some research on the translation by Sarolta A. Takács, and also of Eck's book more generally, has gave rise to some criticisms of the work, and also with regards to it's editing. Those criticisms can be found at the following link:

With regards the Latin translations, I feel unqualified to comment, but I can confirm that the 2007 edition reviewed here does not contain the rather humourous "Inspector Caesar" error.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A note on the merit of secondary sources and materials.

This debate is far too lengthy, and complex, for me to elucidate here, but I feel I should make a brief statement of my thoughts on the topic, especially considering the fact the question was brought up in my thoughts on Robin Seager's "Pompey: A political biography".

The myriad of philosophical and historiographical views on whether secondary sources are indeed useful are difficult to wade through, and so my immediate thoughts are to consider a more simple understanding, which I hope to, briefly, explain.

I think secondary sources have inherent worth. The amount of extant works we have from the classical corpus is extremely limited, and while the focus should always be on trying to make sense of the primary sources, secondary studies are, to my mind, necessary for further understanding. Essentially I'm walking, what I consider at least, a pragmatic line - it's unlikely that we'll find any more classical manuscripts and so to avoid stagnation, secondary literature is essential.

The amount of scholarship on the pitfalls of historiography generally is legion, and while I don't advocate disregarding it entirely (I think it's useful to be familiar with the intrinsic faults of any system one uses/is a part of), I believe that truly great secondary literature drives forward discussion and understanding of the primary literature, and regardless of any possible weaknesses, that cannot fail to be helpful.

For example, Ronald Syme's "Roman Revolution" and his works on Tacitus have driven forward interpretations of both Tacitus and the Late Republic/Early Empire with great enthusiasm and vim, whether or not one holds to his views now (it's unlikely anyone does now entirely, although the are still highly respected) is irrelevant, for the jolt he gave to scholarship was immense, and one can hardly say reading him did not force them to reevaluate the primary sources with a keener eye.

Generally these are my views. I'm aware of the debate, and also of the various problems of historiography, but I choose to skim over them somewhat in order to spend more time considering the secondary sources and in the light of those (and sometimes not in the light of those) reread the primary ones, always aware of the inherent problems of historical research and interpretations but choosing not to get lost in them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Some thoughts on Robin Seager's "Pompey: A political biography".

Having read Adrian Goldsworthy's account of Caesar's life (discussed below), my appetite was whetted for some further reading on the Late Republic. My attention immediately turned to Caesar's great opponent (in the end, at least): Pompey.

Given the relative lack of dedicated English language monographs on Pompey, my choice was limited to a 2002 reprint of Robin Seager's 1979 work "Pompey: A political biography", nevertheless the work is a respected study, and so my hand was hardly forced reluctantly to read it.

Seager immediately states his intentions in the preface by saying the work is a political biography of Pompey, and will contain no detailed military discussions (it doesn't - important military battles are covered, or indeed not covered, with swift brevity. Not once does Seager mention a legion, or the triple acies). Coming straight from reading Goldsworthy (a particularly dedicated military historian), I thought this approach would be refreshing. That said, I had some reservations that the work may, as a consequence of the unswerving political focus, never quite get at an understanding of Pompey the man. That worry turned out to be somewhat founded, but I will discuss that later.

Seager chooses to carve up the corpus of Pompey's life into 13 sections, each hovering around 10-15 pages in length. The sections conform to the major events of Pompey's political life, and facilitate a somewhat breakneck jaunt through a rather full life. The opening introductory section is written in an exceptionally clear style, as is the rest of the work, and, to my mind at least, constitutes one of the clearest and brief discussions of the problems facing the Late Republic around, especially in understanding the complexities of land ownership, personal ambition and the changes in military organisation since the end of the Punic Wars (146 B.C.E).

The opening sections discuss the role of Pompey's father in his life, and the situation that Pompey faced after his death - particularly the social and political situation he had inherited. I found the explanations detailing the transition from here to Sulla's "hatchetman" (one among many instances of humour Seager injects into the narrative - pg. 32) especially engaging and adept, with special regards to understanding the complex and original position Pompey held within the Roman state. In fact, Seager does an excellent job throughout of explaining Pompey and his position at any given moment in relation to his piers and the state more generally.

It occurred to me after reading these opening sections that Seager uses a fair amount of Latin, which would seem to conflict with his statement that the work is for the general reader as well as the scholar or student. I then realised that the work was published originally some thirty years ago, and the standards for what has become popular history were undoubtedly different. The Latin provided some problems for myself, who has studied it, and so I can imagine it may hinder the understanding of some key parts of the text to those with no Latin.

Seager states in his afterword that no major scholarly advancement has been made in the thirty years since the original publication of his book, and given the views he expresses within the work it's difficult to disagree with him to any great extent, as the main elements of scholarly discussion and contention are around now as then, and he has similar views in the text to many modern scholars. He does tend to overstate the "popularis" vs "optimate" understanding of the Late Republic, but insomuch as these labels are useful he does use them appropriately, and he's careful to state the individual nature of the periods politics and the simplicity of any such conclusion (pg.29+128) and furthermore stresses the lack of a "monolithic bloc" anywhere in Late Republican politics (pg.132).

One of the areas I feel he fails to illuminate is the nature of a soldiers loyalty during this period. He does, of course, mention that a soldier has great loyalty to his General (as only the General, not the state, can ensure his future prosperity) (pg.28) but he fails to mention the further (logical, I think) conclusion that the soldiers were ultimately out for themselves, and would tie themselves to their General in the hope of self betterment. There is a wide tendency to overstate the post Marian General/soldier relationship as one of exclusive loyalty, and while it makes much sense, I feel it's important to stress not only the individual nature of Roman politics but also the, similarly, selfish world the soldiers likely inhabited too. Again, I think my view on this is influenced by Gruen's "Last Generation of the Roman Republic", so I will comment more fully on this in the future.

The greatest strength of the work is in how the political narrative can help one to understand the characters of the time. One is given an excellent understanding of the vanity of Pompey through his political decisions, and there is also considerable worth in the depictions of Cicero as equally vein (pg.77) and of the exceptionally petty actions of the ruling elite, Cato especially (pg.83-84).

The Late Republic was a time full of interesting characters, and Seager's political focus serves to highlight the often dirty side of the whole affair - which is an admirable achievement given the temptation to consider the "Great Men" of the period apart from their actions. The leading men of the time were usually corrupt, bribery was endemic and each would do almost anything to ensure their personal ambitions. It was a period of intense rivalry and widespread disorder. Seager manages to highlight these characters indirectly through his purely political discussion, and in doing so states only fact and reasonable judgements. Significant value judgements are left at square at the feet of the reader. This element of the work, I think, is an illuminating minor triumph.

One of the upshots from this is that Pompey is not painted as the tragic, somewhat bumbling political figure that he often is. Whether or not to view him like this is entirely for the reader to decide, and I found it quite refreshing to distance myself from the more common depictions of Pompey as a tragic figure and try to understand him as a more rounded individual.

Sadly, the greatest criticism is on a related note. The book feels less about Pompey and more about a constant fizz and rush of political events, albeit somewhat centred around Pompey himself. One can take a step towards understanding Pompey via his political decisions and actions, but there is very little reflection on Pompey as a man. This focus on Pompey as a political agent is perhaps a reflection of the works age - scholarship certainly used to focus on politics at the expense of other avenues, although critically this may all be for naught - as the work is clearly called a political biography. To my mind the criticism is not strong enough to damage the work significantly, but it's certainly valid enough insomuch as it highlights the age of the work and the faults that stem from that.

Defined by it's own terms the work is a success, I think, without any doubt. It's a clear and thoughtful story of the political life of Pompey that offers much to be pondered. Considered more generally it could be said to have certain weaknesses, many of these stemming from it's age and approach (Seager is aware of these and makes mention of them frequently in his afterword). He also is just one step away from rendering the reprint as pointless (given the lack of serious advances in scholarship on Pompey and in the debatable usefulness of political biography and secondary monographs more generally), but is saved by the fact that secondary sources for Pompey's life in English are somewhat lacking and having any in print serves the common good.

If indeed the work is somewhat outdated, the fact that it is now more available surely is a positive thing - for perhaps it can serve as a basis for the fuller study of Pompey that is still needed, the one that recognises not just political moving and shaking, but the events that may have driven him, like the death of Julia, or his intense fear of assassination. This criticism can be thrown at Goldsworthy also, insomuch as the death of Julia gets surprisingly little coverage or analysis, and so perhaps in many ways these two books about the two greatest figures of the Late Republic, despite claiming to be aimed at the normal reader, are still, if perhaps unwittingly, tied to the two dominant classical scholarly traditions of the past - that of politics and war.


Relevant bibliography: Seager, R, "Pompey: a political biography", Blackwell (2002).


Addendum: It occurred to me several days after initially posting this that Seager was perhaps limited to political biography because it's the only form biography that follows the facts we know, and somewhat avoids the problems of historiography (where possible). In that respect, many of the criticisms above are unjust, as they fail to give credit for a conscious decision in making it purely a political biography.

It's not that a more rounded study wouldn't be appreciated (despite the methodological problems that it may involve), simply that Seager considered the worth of secondary monographs more generally and concluded a political biography was the only avenue he could really explore.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Rome March 2008.

I usually try to visit Rome at least once per year, and the photos accompanying this post are from March 2008. I am planning to visit later this month (late July 2009) and so will add an update to this post after that trip. The pictures enclosed within this post are just my personal highlights, and number only three.

The first picture is of the Pantheon - which is now a Christian Church. It's an astoundingly interesting building originally built by Augustus' right-hand man - Marcus Agrippa, but later altered under the auspices of the Emperor Hadrian. There is considerable debate about it's original form, and this is exacerbated regarding Hadrian's habit of plastering the names of the original builders whenever overhauling or upgrading a building, making it difficult to decide which part was intended/built/funded by whom. Despite this, the current form is a breathtaking building that is, to my mind, the best preserved Roman building in the world.

Originally the Pantheon was built on a hill, and with it's enormous bronze dome, it constituted a dominant part of the Ancient Roman skyline. Sadly, changes in topography since that period mean it now lies somewhat in a ditch, although it's a testament to it's enduring majesty that it still dominates it's surroundings.

The second picture is taken from one of the bustling transport hubs of the modern city - Largo Di Torre Argentina. Despite the buzz and movement, the four Republican temples which form the centre of the square are immensely interesting. This area was formerly located in the Campus Martius (The fields of Mars) just outside the Ancient City, but is now in the centre of one of the world's busiest cities. Nevertheless the square holds large significance, not least because the ruins of Pompey's theatre are also here, and indeed these hold the spot where it is believed Julius Caesar was murdered. My picture shows the areas relevant to that significant event.

The final picture is taken from inside the Temple of Julius Caesar in the heart of the Forum Romanum. It was taken a few days after the anniversary of his murder on the Ides (15th) of March 44 B.C.E, ergo the arrangement of flowers and other memorials. In many ways I found this very surprising, but when one considers the sheer impact of Caesar on modern culture (touched upon just a little in my last post) it's really not a great surprise. Either way, it's quite moving and very interesting.

Clicking on any of the pictures will render them full size and as a result much clearer.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Some thoughts on Adrian Goldsworthy's "Caesar: Life of a Colossus".

Let me begin by stating that Adrian Goldsworthy's "Caesar: Life of a Colossus" is one of my favourite popular history accounts of any aspect of Classical History (another being Tony Perrottet's "Route 66A.D, which I also hope to write about in the future).

Weighing in at some 674 pages (including bibliography and notes) it is a substantial tome for being, as Goldsworthy himself states, a non-academic/scholarly work. Nevertheless, the narrative of Caesar's live is sprightly and gallops from his birth in 100 B.C.E until his untimely murder in 44 B.C.E with great speed and a hint of restlessness - qualities documented to be held by Caesar himself - and so the relative length is inconsequential in most respects.

Goldsworthy splits Caesar's very full life into three general sections: (i) - The rise to the Consulship 100-59 B.C.E; (ii) - Proconsul 58 - 50 B.C.E and finally (iii) - Civil War and Dictatorship 49 - 44 B.C.E, with each section having a few clear and relevant subsections. Carving Caesar's life up into three large and unruly chunks initially seemed to me as oversimplification, but having read this work several times now, I think it facilitates an easier understanding of a complicated life. Caesar's life can be understood, in it's most basic form, as working towards and attaining the Consulship, his time as Proconsul and finally the Civil War and death and so Goldsworthy, I believe, is sensible to divide it for ease of understanding.

Each section is well written and is very detailed for a popular history account, but certainly would never be boring to the layman. Goldsworthy admirably mentions facts from a variety of ancient sources regarding almost every part of Caesar's life, and despite his claim that the work is non-scholarly, he will often remark upon current academic debate, or the veracity of the ancient sources. The result is an easily readable work that touches upon the depths of modern scholarship without becoming too bogged down. That said, Goldsworthy is a scholar, and for anyone with a grounding in classical history, it's clear to see - more on this later.

From the outset Goldsworthy states that he plans to only follow his primary subject - events that are not directly influenced by or have an effect on Caesar will not be mentioned, or indeed skimmed over. The primary reason for this, one suspects, is to retain some structure to the work. The Late Republic is literally a quagmire of events, counter-events, stories, tales, anecdotes and everything in between. For the historian it must be very tempting to include all of these things, yet Goldsworthy sticks notably well to his aim of following only Caesar. One never feels lost in the Late Republic depicted by Goldsworthy (which of course could have been very, very easy), only acutely aware that Caesar is the focus.

One of the great strengths of the work is the middle section regarding Caesar's time as Proconsul in Gaul. Goldsworthy is primarily a military historian (his other publications are heavily based on the Roman army at various periods), and as a result his account of Caesar's "pacification" (Caesar's own term) of Gaul is excellently rendered, fully detailed and highly readable.

He follows Caesar's own account of the war very closely, referencing it at almost every point, but he's aware of the works purpose, and so does not hesitate to question Caesar's words, nor use alternative sources (which in turn he analyses for their veracity). The upshot is a wonderfully complex yet exciting and easily consumed section on Caesar's Gallic Wars.

The beginning and end sections are also of a very high quality, but it is the section that they sandwich that shines the most, as does any section where Goldsworthy gets to roll up his sleeves as a military historian.

Goldsworthy holds a very interesting scholarly line throughout the work, which, although not explicit, is clear to anyone with a classical background. He is keen to stress his disagreement with the now discredited idea of a party system in Rome akin to those in modern democracies, instead going to great lengths to impose upon the reader the idea that Rome was dominated by personal ambition and rivalry. This is an important point to highlight, for understanding this is key to understanding both Caesar and the Late Republic more generally. I recall studying this particular aspect of Roman history in a course entitled "Rivalry and Disorder" and ever since I've been at a loss to explain how crucial it is in understanding the period.

Caesar is treated as an individual who desires unparalleled glory and respect. His enemies are also depicted as individuals, and the transient nature of political ties in Rome is highlighted on many occasions, not to mention the impossibly complex system of patronage and family relations. Goldsworthy performs above par in trying to explain the sheer wealth of connections, grievances and everything else that existed between the Roman elite.

He also is at great pains to emphasise the un-inevitability of events - Caesar was not always aiming at revolution, but only came upon the decision when forced into a corner. Further to this, Goldsworthy makes it clear that despite all the violence and problems facing the Republic, it still managed to function, and the disease that eventually ended it was never chronic until quite late in it's life cycle - a notion that goes against much scholarship, which often reads a certain inevitability to the Republic's demise, sometimes going as far back as the mid 1st Century B.C.E.

He never quite joins Erich S. Gruen in "The Last Generation of the Roman Republic" in believing that the Republic was essentially functional right until the last, but Goldsworthy's refusal to take events as inevitable pushes him somewhat in this direction. In some respects this is a difficult decision - was the Republic resilient or not, and did it run relatively normally right up until the civil war? It's not entirely clear to me, nor in this work. One simultaneously gets the impression that the rot had set by the close of the 2nd Century B.C.E, but also that it was not as clear as all that. It's been a while since I've read Gruen, but my memory indicates that I found him very convincing on this idea, even if I didn't support him whole hog. Perhaps I will post about it in the future.

Goldsworthy also challenges a popular belief that the professional army, with armies loyal to Generals and not the Republic, brought about the end of the Republic. He stresses the individual ambitions of the soldiers in many cases, and without denigrating their obvious loyalty to Caesar, they themselves clung to him in the hope of self betterment as much as heartfelt loyalty. This notion is occasionally clouded as Goldsworthy does reference the intense ties soldiers now had to their Generals instead of the state, but I think it's clear that he doesn't put the fall of the Republic squarely at the feet of the new professional army - an avenue of thought I agree with.

He also, refreshingly, will offer a simple alternative to a heated scholarly debate - the idea that Caesar's womanising may simply be down to a love for sex, and Pompey's consecutive marriages to younger women may be a result of his despair at ageing. It's often tempting to read these particular parts of Caesar's and Pompey's characters as having greater political dimensions, especially with respect to how often private affairs were dominated by things such as public image and ambition. Goldsworthy's more "simple" conclusions are elegant, and should never be rejected purely because they might seem base and unscholarly.

His view is very anti-holistic, but is cohesive enough to be easily read and enjoyed. Given the absolute social milieu of the period, that is worthy of praise in itself. Again and again Goldsworthy challenges generally held ideas and facts about the period - urging a deeper understanding.

One of the most fascinating aspects is that everything is set into context, Caesar into his society, his actions with respect to past Romans, Roman society into the world more generally - the list goes on. He emphasises that it's important to understand Caesar in his world - not through the confusing glasses of retrospect, Hollywood cinema and the slightly bent interpretations of the Principate from which many of our ancient sources come.

The work, as a popular historical account, has no substantial downsides. It is, perhaps, a little lengthy for it's target audience and, although this may seem contradictory, the period really requires some background knowledge, which Goldsworthy can never fully provide (not a criticism per se), and it lacks a certain appeal to those already well versed in Caesar's life as it's not a ruthlessly detailed scholarly text. Walking the line between scholarship and popular history is, I imagine, quite difficult, especially for the scholar. That said, however, it is detailed enough and offers a fresh enough perspective to be interesting even to the hardened scholar. The fact that it holds within it much academic debate (although it's not explicitly referenced) adds to the inherent interest of the work to academics. The work was never intended to be groundbreaking scholarship, and so levelling a criticism based upon it's lack of academic debate seems unfair. In many ways it trumps scholarship, as it contains witty and refreshing prose about a topic that hardly lacks written volume.

The greatest success of the work, in my opinion, is it's basic challenge to the commonly held image of Caesar. Goldsworthy wants his readers to see past the idolised Caesar and get a feel of the real Caesar - as much as one now exists and we are able to grasp of it.

I think this idea is wonderfully symbolised by the front cover of the work, where the idolised bust of Caesar is halved - showing that there was much more to the man than one may superficially think, and also that, despite this, the idolised image of Caesar exists for a reason - the man is an idol. Goldsworthy's respect of this fact is one of the most endearing things about this work. Caesar was of course a real man, who the book tries to uncover with great vigor, but the magnitude of Caesar as a man, character, image and symbol, magnified by over 2000 years, is so all encompassing it's sometimes hard to see through it.

Goldsworthy admits that Caesar is difficult to pin down, as I mentioned in the above paragraph, but he tries admirably to understand Caesar in context to the greatest extent that we can. Some things can never be known, nor fully understood, and it's certain that retrospect will colour all conceptions of the man himself, but insomuch as he was a man, I certainly feel much closer to knowing him having read Goldsworthy than I was before, and that is, to my mind, certainly the greatest marker of the success of this work and of any biography more generally.


Related bibliography: Adrian Goldsworthy, "Caesar: Life of a Colossus", Phoenix (2007).

Addendum: An interesting academic review of the work can be found here: It's interesting and in many ways quite valid. It is perhaps a little academically cynical regarding Caesar's status as a "great man", but is nevertheless a thoughtful and comprehensive review.


My aim in writing this blog is simply to chronicle, and as a result have a documented record, of my musings with regards to classical history.

The plethora of blogs out there mean this one is unlikely to ever be read by any third party - a fact which I am keenly aware of. That said, my central wish is to chronicle my own thoughts, primarily for my own needs - in many respects I consider it something like a diary. If, however, anyone does read it, I welcome comments or reflections on the content herein.

My thoughts will, I hope, take a variety of forms - reviews of books, academic observations, simple musings and whatever else is being mulled over in my head at any one point, although, of course, everything will be related to classical history (to my mind that means the whole gamut anywhere from the supposed fall of Troy in the 13th or 12th Century B.C.E right through until the decline of the Western Roman Empire in the Mid 1st Millennia C.E).

Updates may be sporadic, as they'll conform to as and when I have something to say. I'm currently rereading Adrian Goldsworthy's popular history tome "Caesar: Life of a Colossus" and the topic of my first post is going to be on that work.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Awaiting content.

I will be adding content as and when inspiration strikes.